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Irish walks to whet Kiwi tourists' appetites

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Jan 07, 2008

A love match spawned nearly 60 years ago on the foxhunting fields of the Irish province of Munster between a Limerick Catholic and a South Canterbury Protestant will bear further fruit this year when their daughter, Rachel Ryan, escorts a touring group from New Zealand.

Ryan has a vision, just like that of her father – Thady Ryan, a legendary name in Irish hunting – of bringing religions and cultures together in understanding and harmony, as has occurred in sport, including hunting. Her 10-day walking tour of the west of Ireland, with an accompanying chef and local guides, she says, will not be "fake glamour" but will enable Kiwis to get "under the skin of Irish culture" while enjoying themselves.

Cultures entwined after her father first saw Anne Peter, a Geraldine horsewoman, at a Tipperary equestrian event. Their romance soon blossomed. Formerly a boarder at Christchurch's Rangi Ruru Girls' School, Peter – a descendant of Canterbury Superintendent W. S. Moorhouse – was staying during 1948-50 in County Tipperary at the home of an Anglo-Irish aunt and fellow Anglican, Nellie Armitage (nee Moorhouse).

Prospects of a Protestant marrying into an Irish Catholic family, the Ryans of Scarteen, raised trans-hemisphere ripples of disquiet. Anne Peter and Thady Ryan, however, were finally wed in a New Zealand Catholic church – the Sacred Heart Basilica, Timaru, in 1953 – before returning to Ireland.

Chef d'equipe of Irish three-day equestrian teams at the Tokyo and Mexico Olympics in the 1960s, Thady Ryan became influential in raising horse-breeding standards in Ireland. Pre-eminent in hunting circles, he was master for 60 years of his family's County Limerick-based Scarteen Hunt and huntsman for 40 years.

One of his sons, Chris, is the current joint huntsman and holder of the Scarteen master's badge of office – the horn – continuing a family link with a renowned pack that extends back 350 years. Only eight masters have had the Scarteen horn – all of them Ryans, and the family is foremost among the Irish families who have centuries-old involvement in hunts.

Followers in Irish hunting tend to have less of the elitism associated with English foxhunting, and leaders such as Thady Ryan have stoutly defended the code – against critics of "blood sports" – as a necessary cull to maintain a healthy fox population without the injuries and maiming that would be caused by shooters. The sport attracts participants from North America and all over Europe, and the Ryans' Scarteen Hunt, on low-lying terrain but with demanding ditches and banks, has been described as the world's best.

Scarteen is distinctive in maintaining a hunting pack of purebred black-and- tan Kerry beagles. The breed was the dominant hunting hound of the Irish before being usurped by English foxhounds from the 18th century onwards. Kerry beagles are regarded as having particularly sharp noses and "marvellous music" (vocal capacity). More affectionate than English foxhounds, they are, however, more noted for their character than obedience (highlighting perhaps, as Thady Ryan used to say, their Irishness).

The Scarteen property, where Rachel Ryan grew up, backs onto the Tipperary border and is still owned by the Ryans, although Thady and Anne came to New Zealand in 1987 and settled near Temuka. They imported and bred Irish draught horses and Connemara ponies. Thady died three years ago, and Anne has just this month shifted from Temuka to Nelson.

Their Irish-born daughter and eldest child – Rachel, now of Delaware Bay, Nelson – embraced New Zealand in 1980, her immigration being partly to visit her mother's relatives but also to open a Montessori school in Palmerston North. She had trained in London as a Montessori teacher and taught the method in Galway on the west coast of Ireland.

"I didn't pine for Ireland at all after I came here," says Ryan, who has benefited in cultural merging by marrying a part-Maori. "I feel at home here, although I also still feel enveloped in Ireland."

Her goal of introducing small groups of New Zealanders – starting next June – to the culture and countryside of Ireland gained momentum after a recent trip with Alice, one of her two daughters. She also decided that a walking tour was the best way to absorb the landscape with an itinerary based away from the well-worn tourist tracks. She and brother Hugh Ryan will be the drivers of two seven-seat support vehicles.

Irish rural cuisine has a growing reputation, and natural Irish food will be prepared by chef Elin Payne, a graduate chef from the esteemed Ballymaloe Cookery School, Cork. She will also transport the luggage. Self-catering lodges and cottages have been chosen, with dinners, breakfasts and gourmet picnic lunches provided along with wines.

Wild regions will include West Cork/Kerry's Beara Peninsula, Tipperary's Galtee Mountains and Glen of Aherlow, and Clare's amazing limestone Burren. The Dawn of Summer solstice at Grange Circle, Lough Gur, County Limerick, and various ancient sites will be other highlights – and, of course, there will be opportunity to see the Ryan property and the Scarteen pack.

Meetings with craftspeople, food producers, owners of homes of historical interest, along with experience of music, dance, theatre and storytelling are on the itinerary.

A moderate degree of fitness is required, with between 15km and 28km of walking on each of six full days.

The price for the tour is $NZ4173. International air travel, return ferry to the Aran Islands and four of the meals are among several items not included.

stuff.co.nz

Irish walks to whet Kiwi tourists' appetites
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